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Set amidst the political turbulence and social unrest of contemporary Mexico City, An Easy Thing introduces English-speaking readers to Taibo's human and world-weary protagonist, independent detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne. In this debut outing, our hero, who, incidentally, possesses an insatiable appetite for Coca Cola and cigarettes, tackles three cases simultaneously: a killing in a corrupt factory; the deadly threats against a former porn starlet's teenage daughter; and, strangely, the search for Emiliano...
Set amidst the political turbulence and social unrest of contemporary Mexico City, An Easy Thing introduces English-speaking readers to Taibo's human and world-weary protagonist, independent detective Hector Belascoaran Shayne. In this debut outing, our hero, who, incidentally, possesses an insatiable appetite for Coca Cola and cigarettes, tackles three cases simultaneously: a killing in a corrupt factory; the deadly threats against a former porn starlet's teenage daughter; and, strangely, the search for Emiliano Zapata, folk hero and leader of the Mexican Revolution, rumored to be alive and hiding out in a cave outside Mexico City.
Combining black comedy, social history and a touch of surrealism, Paco Taibo's wonderfully idiosyncratic detective novels are admired the world over and are particularly popular in Europe and in the Spanish-speaking world.
"One more, boss," said Hector Belascoarán Shayne.
For half an hour, he'd stood with his elbows anchored to the bar, letting the time slip by, his eyes wandering nowhere in particular, interrupting the bustle of his thoughts every now and then to order another drink. The cantina was called The Lighthouse at the End of the World. It was a high-class dive located inside the old feudal city of Azcapotzalco, in what had once been the outskirts of Mexico City, but was now just another link in an endless chain of industrial zones, where the picturesque remains of haciendas, graveyards, and village churches stood in the shadow of a monstrous oil refinery, the pride of fifties technology.
He drained the last drop from his glass and accepted a fresh one from the bartender. From the beginning, he'd been emptying the rum on the sawdust-covered floor and pouring Coke into the glass, spiking it with a twist of lime. These virgin cuba libres saved him the embarrassment of not drinking liquor in a cantina. Besides which, the little game amused him.
All around him, a group of village musicians were getting mercilessly wasted on mezcal and tequila. They'd come to town looking for work, but didn't find any, and were celebrating their bad luck. Between rounds and rounds and rounds and rounds, they played old songs spiced up with a few asthmatic trombones and cheap, tinny-sounding trumpets.
The din grew louder.
He asked for another cuba libre and poured the rum on the floor. "This makes seven," he told himself, not knowing for certain whether he was really thirsty or whether he simply just wanted to keep the binging musicians company. The only problem was, in that environment, even his fictitious drinks were starting to have a psychological effect.
"Don Belascoarán?" inquired a hoarse voice in the midst of the tumult.
Hector emptied his glass and left the bar, following the man with the hoarse voice. They wound their way through the crowd of drunk musicians, prostitutes, and refinery workers gearing up for the weekend—toward that same lonely table that stands in the back of every Mexican cantina, as if it's waiting for the great Pedro Infante, strumming his guitar and dressed like a Mexican charro, to walk in and claim it as his own. The stranger dropped into one of the chairs, waiting for Hector to do the same before removing his cowboy hat and depositing it on another chair nearby.
"I got a little job for you." The man was about fifty years old. He had dreamy gray eyes set in a face of proud, noble features. A two-inch scar ran across his sunbaked forehead.
"But first ... first I have to tell you a story. It's an old story and it starts where the history books end ... in 1919 on a hacienda in Chinameca, with the murdered body of Emiliano Zapata laid out on the ground and the flies eating at his eyes ... or at least the body of the guy who they thought was Emiliano."
The old man paused to drain his glass of tequila.
"Because, you see, Emiliano never went to the hacienda. He knew what his enemies were like, and he knew how far he could trust them. He ended up sending this buddy of his who wanted to go in his place. The guy kept insisting, and so Emiliano sent him just to keep him off his back. He's the guy that got shot out there at the ranch. Emiliano went into hiding and watched the Revolution die ... It wasn't like him to do that, but, you see, he'd lost his self-confidence, he'd lost faith ... he didn't want to go on any more. So, like I said, he went underground. Then in 1926 he met this Nicaraguan guy working for the Huasteca Petroleum Company in Tampico. Emiliano was a quiet guy. You couldn't get him to say a word. What had happened to the revolution, well, you know, it had taken something out of him. He was forty- seven years old at the time, and the Nica was only twenty- eight. The guy's name was Sandino. They went together to Nicaragua to fight against the gringos. And they fought 'em good, too. If you look carefully you can see him in some of those old pictures, kind of off to the side in one of the corners, like he doesn't want to be seen, almost like he isn't even there ... But when it came down to giving the gringos a little bit of hell, you can bet he was in there with the best of 'em. Yessir. He'd learned a lot in the revolution, and he put it to good use. But the deal came down in Nicaragua, too, and Sandino got killed. Now the pictures are the only proof that Emiliano was there ... After Nicaragua he came home to Mexico, holed up in a cave, and wouldn't eat. He was ready to die there, alone.
"But the people found him and they wouldn't let him starve. They brought him food and took care of him. The years slipped by. Then Rubén Jaramillo started organizing again, and don Emiliano gave him advice. They would spend hours in the cave together, talking ... And then the bastards killed Jaramillo. Don Emiliano came out to visit his friend's grave and then went back to his cave for good.
"And that's where he is today ... He's still there, he's still there."
The surrounding hubbub finally broke the bubble of silence that enclosed Belascoarán and the man with the scar. With three of their members sleeping it off under a table, the rest of the orchestra let loose with a tearful bolero dominated by the wind instruments' sorrowful wail. A couple of dozen regulars filled the bar, at that hour mostly workers from a small foundry on the corner, and as the band played on, a hush fell over the crowd and the men's faces grew serious. Even the domino players stopped rattling the bones, and slid the pieces silently across the marble tabletops.
"What's it got to do with me?" asked the detective. He had lived his whole life in a city where the legend of Zapata had never managed to break free from the hollowness of the towering monuments or the frozen metal of the statues. The warm sun that shone in the state of Morelos, Zapata's old stomping grounds, had never broken through the gray horizon of Mexico City's rain-streaked Septembers. But all the same, Hector wanted to believe. He longed to see the heroic Zapata, now ninety-seven years old, charging up the avenues of the city on his white horse, filling the wind with his bullets.
"What's it got to do with me?" he asked again.
"I want you to find him," rasped Scar-face, producing a leather bag which he set gently onto the table.
Hector guessed at its contents: gold coins, doubloons, silver from the Spanish Empire. But he didn't touch the bag, and he was careful to keep his eyes off it. Intrigued as he was by the old man's story, he still tried to think of it as just another hallucination. Just another one of his many, so typically Mexican hallucinations.
"What if it's all a lie?"
"Then prove it to me. I want proof," answered Scar-face, getting up from the table. He downed another shot of tequila and walked away.
"Hey, wait a minute," Hector called in the direction of the swinging doors as the orchestra ended the bolero and broke for the bar.
Hector picked up the bag and stowed it safely in the inner pocket of his gabardine coat. Outside, the rain came down in sheets, slapped at his face, and soaked his hair. He couldn't see for more than fifteen feet.
"Puta madre," he swore under his breath, "the guy wants me to find Emiliano Zapata."
The noise of the rain drowned out the noise from The Lighthouse at the End of the World. Hector stepped farther out into the storm, picking his way between the puddles, trying to avoid the streams of water that cascaded from drainpipes over the street.
His thoughts were full of the sun shining over the state of Morelos, the sun that had once shone on the face of Emiliano Zapata.
* * *
The taxi dropped him in front of the Herrera Funeral Home. Yellowish lights lit the street and cast a luminous glow around the place. The storm had dissipated, but puddles still dotted the street, brimming with reflections. A pair of old men shuffled past Hector as he went inside, and he strained to catch a few words in the whispered conversation that trailed off behind them like a tail. Two hearses stood in the courtyard, along with a florist's pickup unloading funeral wreaths.
"Room number three?" he asked the receptionist.
He followed a pair of arrows set on posts, into a large salon filled with a yellowish light, where a steel-gray coffin rested on a marble tabletop. Its silent presence dominated the room.
Hector looked around. His aunts, dressed in black, sat in the corner opposite the door, whispering among themselves. His sister, Elisa, stood alone, with her back to the coffin, staring out a darkened window at the last scattered drops of rain. His brother, Carlos, sat near the door, with his head between his hands, while the maid and the gardener from the house in Coyoacán sat two chairs farther on, dressed rigorously in black. The family lawyer stood in front of the coffin, conversing in hushed tones with a representative of the funeral home.
Hector approached the coffin and lifted the lid. There was a serenity to the face that he hadn't seen for many years. The long gray hair fell around her neck, and a Spanish mantilla covered her head. A gift from his father, it served as a reminder of those terrible years.
"Good-bye, Mama," he whispered.
And now what? What do you do now? Do you cry because your mother's dead? Do you try to bring back the memories of closeness and love? Try somehow to search your unconscious for that spinal recollection of earliest childhood? Do you play the games again? Do you ignore the bad times, the fights, the scoldings, the unbridgeable distance of recent years?
Do you cry? Is it best to cry, even just a little bit, shaking the dust from forgotten feelings until the tears come? Or is it better to say So long, and walk away?
Hector closed the lid and went out.
Outside again, in the patio, he stopped to watch the workers unloading flowers from the pickup truck, and lit a cigarette. A pair of tears stained his cheeks.
Elisa came up beside him, sliding her hand around his upper arm. For a long time they stood together in silence, not looking at each other, starting straight ahead. Later on they sat down on a set of steps leading onto the central courtyard. It had stopped raining.
"The damn lawyer wants the three of us to meet him in his office tomorrow at six P.M.," announced Carlos, lighting a cigarette as he joined them. "Was it the same when Papa died?" he asked after a brief silence.
"You don't remember?"
"How old was I? Six?"
"Yeah, I guess so ... It was worse then, a lot worse. Papa was a lot closer to us, and we were younger then, too. It was different," Hector explained.
"Death is different now," said Elisa, and Hector felt her hand tighten around his arm.
So long, Mama, he thought. It's all over now. You don't have to worry any more about the time passing by, no more lonely nights in your man's big empty house, no more pictures to look at from when you sang for the internationalists in Spain, or when you performed your Irish folk songs in New York City, no more nostalgia, no more worrying over your beautiful, bright red hair gone gray. No more wayward children you can't understand. That's it, the show's over, you did it all. It was worth it.
Was it worth it? he wondered.
"Fucking death. Fuck everybody who has to die this way," he said.
* * *
He dropped down onto the unmade bed. Unmade since yesterday and the day before, unmade until tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, until his disgust finally compelled him to make it again, to smooth sheet against sheet, to fight back against the invincible wrinkles, to beat the lumps out of the pillow (deposited there by who knows what mysterious process), and to shake the ancient dust from the beautiful Oaxacan blanket which was the only luxury he allowed himself, the only aesthetic concession he was willing to make in that tiny room with bare walls and bald furniture.
He rubbed his fingertips against his aching temples. After hesitating for a moment, he got up from the bed and walked wearily, like a man with a pair of incompatible ideas crowding the space inside his head, to the corner of the room where he'd dropped his gabardine trench coat. No matter what I do to it, it always ends up looking like a rag, he thought fondly. From one of its inner pockets, he pulled the wrinkled envelope he'd been carrying around all day. He studied it carefully. His office address was written in a steady, round hand, beneath a set of Italian stamps displaying a sepia-tinted image of the Coliseum. A larger, modish-looking special-delivery stamp added a sense of urgency.
Hector weighed the envelope in his hand, opened it slowly, and dropped back onto the bed.
I started out hoping that I'd be able to tell you what I'm doing here, and before I'd even written the first line I knew that I'd never never never never never never be able to explain any of it. As if there was anything to explain! Now I know there's no such thing as escape, and that a journey has no end at all, but only a beginning. What are you running from? What am I running from? When you're running away from yourself, then there's nowhere to go, no place is safe, there's nowhere to hide. You look in the mirror and see the person you're running away from right there in front of you every day.
What do I do? you ask, How do I spend my time? I couldn't even tell you. Sometimes something touches me, breaks through, leaves a mark: a certain person, a glass of chianti, a plate of veal with red peppers, a glimpse of the sea ... But mostly the hours fly by, all so much alike, all so different, all so damn meaningless. Now you see them, now you don't. I'll bet the enemy knows what to do with them.
I sleep a lot.
I sleep alone.
Shit, I wasn't going to say anything.
I walk all the time. Like a madwoman. Who knows, maybe I am.
I love you. I love you I love you I love you I love you
Still chasing after stranglers?
Send me a map of Mexico City, and mark all the streets where we used to walk, and the parks, and the bus routes. Mail me a Metro ticket, and a picture of my race car. Send me a picture of you on San Juan de Letrán, walking along at exactly five o'clock in the afternoon, like on that day.
Pretty soon I'll get bored with running away from myself and then we can see each other again. Will you wait for me? —ME
He read it again, from beginning to end, line by line. Then he took a look at the photograph, the Italian bus token, the map of Venice, the newspaper clipping, the napkin with the lipstick kiss.
He went back to the photo: a lonely woman in a lonely street. A fruit seller in the distance gave it a more human perspective. She wore a long black dress with a high collar and wide, flowing skirt, black boots with inlaid bits of color. In one hand she held a folded newspaper, a long-stemmed carnation in the other. Her brightly smiling face, in three- quarter profile, her hair gathered into the familiar ponytail at the back of her head.
He hesitated and then stuck the photograph on the windowsill, wedging a corner into a small crack between the sill and the pane of glass.
The face in the picture smiled sweetly at him, and finally, Hector Belascoarán Shayne, detective by trade, replaced the furrowed brow and poker face he'd worn all day long with a weak smile.
Life goes on.
Walking into the kitchen, he turned on the radio, heated some oil in a pan, and started to chop up tomatoes and onions for a steak à la mexicana. He found some chiles in the refrigerator, and as he salted and peppered the steak, he thought about his life.
Excerpted from An Easy Thing by Paco Ignacio Taibo II Copyright © 1990 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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